If Silvio Berlusconi had a stage name he might well use Harry Houdini for his remarkable ability to escape justice.
But on Tuesday he faces his toughest test yet as Italy’s highest appeals court must decide whether to uphold his conviction for tax fraud over the purchase of broadcasting rights by his television network Mediaset.
Law expert, Maurizio Bellacosa, says the verdict is crucial: “This judgement before the Supreme Court is so relevant because, for the first time, Berlusconi is really close to a potential definitive sentence. And we are speaking about a serious crime – tax fraud – with a serious conviction, because Berlusconi was sentenced to four years of imprisonment, even if three years were deleted by the ‘indulto’, a sort of Italian pardon, plus the additional penalty of disqualification from public offices.”
Italy’s former prime minister is accused of inflating the price paid for television rights using offshore companies under his control in 2005.
He is said to have then skimmed off part of that money to create illegal slush funds. This is Berlusconi’s last roll of the dice to avoid a four-year jail term and a five-year ban from public office. But Bellacosa says the outcome is not clear cut.
“At the end of the hearing before the Supreme Court there are three possible outcomes. Obviously one possibility is the confirmation of the sentence; another possibility is the cancellation of the conviction. But according to the Italian judicial system there is also a third possibility, because the Supreme Court could cancel the conviction ordering a new trial before the Court of Appeal of Milan for evaluating some specific issues or elements,” he said.
Berlusconi, 76, has reportedly said he is ready to go to jail rather than face house arrest or community service if his conviction is upheld. Due to an amnesty law and his age, that means he will most likely only serve a one year sentence.
Nevertheless, the billionaire media magnate says he is hopeful his appeal will succeed.
What is less certain is the effect the trial will have on tensions within Prime Minister Enrico Letta’s left-right coalition government.
Berlusconi’s lawyers had not expected a ruling until late in the year but the court said it had been forced to call a special summer sitting because part of the case will expire under the statute of limitations on August 1.
The move led to a parliamentary protest by members of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, and some members of the ruling left wing Democratic Party have suggested power can not be shared with a party whose leader is banned from public office.
Now there is a strong possibility that a guilty verdict could create renewed uncertainty in the euro zone’s third largest economy as it struggles to climb out of its worst post-war recession.
To explore the potential consequences should Silvio Berlusconi’s conviction be upheld, Euronews turned to Stefano Folli, a columnist with the Italian economic newspaper ‘Il Sole 24 Ore’.
Simona Volta, euronews:
“If the judges in Rome were to convict Berlusconi with no further appeal possible, banning him from public office, what are the possible scenarios?”
Stefano Folli, ‘Il Sole 24 ore’:
“The scenarios are unpredictable. They’re bound to be quite powerful because if they uphold the conviction it would mean the man who dominated Italian politics over the last twenty years would leave the political scene because he’d no longer have a public role. He would also leave Parliament. This would lead to big changes in the centre-right. But more interestingly, it’s difficult to say what the consequences would be for the government – because right now, for everyone – from Berlusconi to the Prime Minister Enrico Letta – it’s in their interests to say that the stability of the coalition is of the utmost importance. Certainly I don’t think that nothing will happen, rather I think that if Berlusconi’s conviction is upheld it will have a strong destabilising effect on the governing alliance.”
“You mean the government could fall?”
“For the moment, we have to wait and see what the ruling will be. I’ve talked about the most extreme scenario, but there are other possibilities. The judges could annul the two previous convictions, in which case there could be a new trial, or they could reduce the sentence. For instance they could annul the ban from public office. So…the Supreme Court is considering a wide range of options. But whatever the sentence, it’s obvious because of his age that Berlusconi will leave the political scene. The problem is how to ensure a certain stability with a scenario where Berlusconi won’t be pulling the strings of the centre-right anymore, as he has done for years.”
“Europe is still looking to Italy. And this week’s nerves have also been felt on the Italian stock exchange in Milan, which on Monday had the worst losses in Europe. What could happen to the country if the government falls?”
“Nothing positive. The guaranteed stability of the past few months has been precious. If Italy loses that, we will enter a new era of uncertainty. I know that politics will come up with new solutions, it’s clear that new parties will be born, but condemning ourselves to a period of heavy instability would send a very negative signal to Europe. And it’s no coincidence that we’re already seeing some of these signals.”
Stefano Folli, a columnist with ‘Il Sole 24 Ore’, was speaking from Rome to euronews’ Simona Volta.